SBJ/Sept. 23-29, 2013/In Depth
Bill Daly has become NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's trusted deputy, and possible successor, with a friendly, no-nonsense approach
Published September 23, 2013, Page 1
Daly was a rising star at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a firm so impressed by his early work as a legal assistant that they helped pay some of his costs for law school.
|Daly became the league's first deputy commissioner in 2005.
“I’m sure it was a much bigger event for me than it was for the commissioner,” Daly said, laughing.
Little did he know, but two years later, Daly would be tapped as the NHL’s chief legal officer, marking the start of a career that would make him the go-to guy for Bettman and the heir apparent to commissioner.
Daly, 49, joined the NHL in 1996 and was promoted by Bettman to deputy commissioner — the only one in the league’s 97-year history — in 2005. Club owners are quick to praise his intelligence and accessibility.
“He’s just an incredibly smart man with a work ethic and passion to match,” said Mark Chipman, the chairman and governor of the Winnipeg Jets. “He is a great deputy commissioner and there’s no question in my mind that some day Bill will make a great commissioner.”
Daly’s life growing up in Kinnelon, N.J., was, in his own words, “pretty unremarkable.” His family was middle-class. He spent his days after school playing football, baseball, street hockey and Strat-O-Matic with his friends.
He spent many nights in the stands at Madison Square Garden with his father, a longtime New York Rangers season-ticket holder.
Daly’s lone sibling, Denise, three years his senior, was the more adventurous teenager. Denise went to Bolivia as an
|Daly played running back at Dartmouth, where he graduated in 1986.
Daly’s focus was sports. He was a speedy running back at Kinnelon High School and received invitations to attend and play for Ivy League schools, including Penn. He chose Dartmouth, majoring in government with an additional concentration in history, and was thinking about pursuing a law degree after college.
“I was thinking about a career in sports law, even back then,” Daly said.
Soon after graduating high school, Daly’s uneventful life took a turn that shook him up. His parents separated, leaving Bill to wonder if going to school almost 300 miles away at Dartmouth was the right thing to do.
“My sister was out of the country and my mom was going to be living alone,” Daly said. “I didn’t like that at all.”
Daly approached his mother and told her that he was thinking of attending college much closer to home.
“Mom told me, ‘No. No way. I’ll be all right,’” Daly recalled. “She insisted that I keep my commitment and told me not to worry about her. She put me over her own concerns. You never forget something like that.”
Daly was viewed as one to watch early on. Not in Dartmouth football, where he was a running back before graduating in 1986, but at law.
He began working as a paralegal at Skadden in New York in 1988. Shepard Goldfein, a partner at the firm who would become Daly’s mentor, assigned him to the team representing the NFL in separate lawsuits brought against the league by the USFL and by former New York Jets running back Freeman McNeil.
“Bill was a stellar performer,” Goldfein said. “He was a walking encyclopedia of sports and absorbed everything we threw at him. He was also tireless, an unbelievable recruit for us.”
“It was apparent that Bill was special,” Goldfein said. “He was clearly on a partner track here.”
Two years later, a chain of events altered that plan. Jeff Pash, then Bettman’s chief legal officer, left the NHL to join Paul Tagliabue at the NFL.
“Jeff Pash is an extraordinary lawyer,” said Bob Batterman, the NHL’s lead outside counsel from Proskauer who has worked with Pash on cases for the NFL and NHL. “When I heard he was leaving to go to work for Paul, my first thought was that Jeff would be impossible to replace.”
Bettman asked friends at Proskauer and Skadden for recommendations. As much as he didn’t want to lose him at Skadden, Goldfein told Bettman, “I have your guy. His name is Bill Daly.”
Bettman was reticent. Daly was young and hadn’t been working for a league.
“I told Gary, ‘Just meet him,’” Goldfein said. “Gary did and called me back soon after and said, ‘You’re right.’”
Daly met with Bettman at the league offices at 1251 Avenue of the Americas in New York. The meeting, which was joined briefly by then-NHL Chief Operating Officer Steve Solomon, lasted more than two hours.
“It was scary, a little bit intimidating,” Daly said. “But I started to get comfortable and there was an immediate connection. We talked about a lot of things — where the NHL stood, what Gary hoped to accomplish with three years as commissioner behind him. I felt good about how it went.”
Bettman recalled, “I liked that he was smart, poised, young and aggressive. I remembered back to my days as general counsel at the NBA and thought that Bill could grow into the position spectacularly. I was right.”
Bettman made an offer soon afterward and Daly took two days to accept. On Dec. 13, 1996, Daly reported to work at the NHL.
There would be plenty of difficult days ahead. Lengthy, at times nasty battles with the NHLPA resulted in a pair of lockouts: one that canceled the 2004-05 season and another that shortened the 2012-13 regular season from 82 to 48 games
Sitting in his office at NHL headquarters as training camps for this season were about to open, Daly reflected on the last two CBA negotiations.
Discussions in 2004-05 with union leaders Bob Goodenow and Ted Saskin were almost entirely focused on the
|Says Daly, "If I feel strongly enough about our position and our ability to defend it, I'll say, 'Let's litigate it.' Although I'm spending the owners' money to litigate, it is money well-spent if you're protecting the integrity of the league."
“This past negotiation was tougher for me, personally, than 2004-05,” Daly said. “The 2004-05 negotiation was more a war of wills. It was a black-and-white negotiation. This time, it was much less black-and-white because we needed some changes to the system, and that made it more difficult. No one in ’04-05 wanted to miss a full season, but everyone recognized it was a real possibility. This time around, it would have been a much bigger collective failure if we didn’t get to a resolution. The stress associated with that made it tougher.”
Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who worked closely with Daly on the recent labor agreement, said the deputy commissioner was in control throughout.
“Bill never goes out of his emotional bandwidth,” Leonsis said. “He also had a strong moral compass, which I believed helped both sides eventually strike a deal. He would say to us, ‘I understand where the union is coming from’ with some of their asks. He also had no trouble telling the players, ‘I don’t feel this is fair and we’re not changing this part because we have done the analytics.’ A very good CBA was crafted, and Bill was essential to that work.”
There were some hard feelings between the league and NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr during the lockout, and it is unclear if they have dissipated.
“Don Fehr is not an easy person to deal with as a critical leader across the table,” Batterman said. “He’s got an attitude to his approach that can be difficult to work with, but Gary and Bill recognize that it’s not Don’s job to make things easy for the league. Bill puts aside ideology and tries to cut a fair deal. Most importantly, the union knows that when Bill speaks, he is speaking for Gary and the owners.”
Daly was reluctant to speak in detail about his relationship with the NHLPA’s leadership. Steve Fehr, special counsel to the NHLPA, was more open, with a sense of humor.
“Bill and I were able to communicate with each other very clearly and got to know each other well,” Steve Fehr said. “There is still a fair amount of communication between us. Of course, there is far less tension than there was, say, around last Christmas.”
Despite the contentious labor talks during the 2012-13 lockout, Steve Fehr said he has strong admiration for his counterpart.
“In all the years that I have spent in these kinds of negotiations, I can’t think of another person as familiar with all aspects of the league’s operation as Bill is with the NHL’s,” said Fehr, a former executive at the MLBPA. “He’s a very valuable asset to the league. I have a high opinion of him.”
While Bettman takes the brunt of the media and fan heat for the lockouts and any controversial rulings as the face of the league office, Daly is no pushover. He is involved in every decision facing the league, from collective bargaining to Olympic participation, and is the direct report for the league’s legal, security, central registry and scheduling staffs. When a club doesn’t follow guidelines for sponsorships, it’s Daly who calls with a warning or punishment.
When the New York Rangers — the team of Daly’s youth — attempted to break from league policy and run their team website independently by filing an antitrust lawsuit in 2007, Daly and the NHL aggressively fought back. In 2008, the NHL asked a U. S. District Court to allow the league to fine, suspend and possibly terminate the franchise.
A private settlement was reached between the two sides in 2009.
For Daly, it’s about principle.
|Daly walks with Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs (left) and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Chairman Larry Tanenbaum during last year’s talks on a new labor contract.
Daly said he is empowered by the confidence Bettman shows in him. The two communicate by email constantly throughout the day and night. The morning often begins with a 15-minute face-to-face in the office.
“There’s no area that he doesn’t include me in,” Daly said. “Gary makes a conscious effort to inform me. There’s also a side of Gary that people who don’t work closely with him don’t know about. His loyalty is really endearing. He expects you to go to the mat for him, but he also goes to the mat for you.”
Bettman said his reasons for disclosing everything to Daly are simple.
“For starters, two heads are better than one,” Bettman said. “And, frankly, it makes my life easier.”
Bill Daly, the man who could be the next commissioner of the NHL, likes beer.
Don Maloney, the general manager of the Phoenix Coyotes, said Daly is an effective leader because, “He’s a good man with street-smart mannerisms, a guy you want to have a beer with.”
At the end of a long day of league business, Daly occasionally enjoys having a few bottles of beer with his colleagues.
“It’s really my only alcoholic beverage of choice,” he said. “I think it’s a good social drink. People let their guards down a bit and have fun. It’s a nice way of developing some relationships.”
Among Daly’s other favorite things is Disney World, which he has visited more than a dozen times.
“Now that [youngest son] Liam is 3 1/2, I see a lot of Disney World in my future,” he said with a smile. “I like a lot of things that Disney stands for and I’m always impressed with how they operate.”
Otherwise, his entertainment choices revolve entirely around sports. Besides NHL games, Daly loves to watch the other big leagues in person and on television.
“The priority to spend as much of my free time with my family is paramount,” Daly said. “Then it’s following sports.”
His mother’s lessons on keeping commitments resonates in Daly’s personal life. Every other late Friday afternoon, at the end of another long workweek, Daly departs the NHL offices in midtown Manhattan for Maryland, where he visits with his teenage son and daughter from his previous marriage. He married his current wife, Gloria, in 2007.
“After he puts in crazy hours, nothing’s stopping Bill from making that drive through traffic to see his children,” said Batterman.
Of course, Daly is not listening to the radio while driving the New Jersey Turnpike.
“It’s a four-hour drive,” Daly said. “I’m on the phone for most of it. I get some work done. One of the more remarkable things about this job is that you never run out of things to do.”
After 17 years in the league, he still rarely stops.
“He amazes me,” said Murray Edwards, the owner of the Calgary Flames and a member of the league’s board of directors. “I’ll speak to him the morning after one of our games and he knows who scored our goals and everything about the game. We’re lucky to have our No. 2 person in the league love the game so much and be so approachable even during the most challenging circumstances.”
This summer, Daly upgraded the equipment in the gym in his Fairfield, N.J., home. Friends say that Daly, who works out before getting to the office, is always conscious of his health. He has been known at times to write down everything he eats. He sometimes wears a step-counter and once was seen walking briskly around the airport tarmac after the league’s private airplane made a fuel stop in Missouri.
“As an ex-football player, I was never the slimmest guy in the world,” he said. “I’m already a bit overweight. I want to be able to enjoy life with my wife and children. Especially with the stress and hours that come with work, I could be enormous if I didn’t watch what I eat and try to live a healthy lifestyle. Of course, the beer doesn’t really mesh with that philosophy. But at least it’s light beer.”
There is labor peace for the next decade. The league is no longer the caretaker of the Phoenix Coyotes, who were owned by the NHL for the last four years before they were purchased this summer. The sale of the New Jersey Devils by Jeff Vanderbeek to a group led by Josh Harris ended the possibility of another burden for Bettman, Daly and the league office.
There will always be fires to put out, cases to litigate. But Daly figures to have a little more time on his hands this season — time he plans on using to improve as a leader.
“It’s a good time to work on my weaknesses,” he said. “I want to improve on managing people and delegating.
Some people will say that I put too much on myself that could be done just as effectively by others. That, in turn, would enhance their professional development. I also need to take more time to get to know the people here better. Sometimes, I’m more accessible to people outside the organization than inside it. That’s not the right way to approach things.”
Despite his concerns, Daly has a reputation as one of the most approachable power brokers in sports. In July, he accepted an invitation by the Vancouver Canucks to speak at an event for season-ticket holders. Although Canucks management and fans had been critical of officiating during the last few years of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Daly didn’t hesitate to answer the bell.
He flew six hours to Vancouver, stayed overnight, and returned to New York the next morning — all so he could participate in a 45-minute session in which he was likely to absorb some verbal jabs.
“He was in the middle of the Coyotes transaction and finalizing the deal for NHL players to be in the Olympics, but Bill kept his promise,” said Canucks President Victor de Bonis. “That says everything you need to know about Bill’s commitment and his people skills.”
As expected, the fans cornered Daly about their perception of bias from the league’s referees against the Canucks.
“I knew it was coming, so I prepared a bit,” Daly said. “I started out with, ‘The game changes in the playoffs.’”
Daly laughed. “Yeah, that didn’t go over very well.”
By the end of the event, Daly won over most of the crowd of more than 5,000 with his candor and sense of humor.
“I enjoyed it,” Daly said. “Everyone close to me knows that intellectual debate is one of my favorite pastimes.”
From that 100-page memo as a law firm associate two decades ago to the current negotiations for a new Canadian media rights deal, in which Daly is supporting the efforts of Bettman and NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins, Daly hasn’t lost his zeal for his work.
“The scope of the issues that come up in my job every day is almost infinite,” Daly said. “It makes it very interesting, challenging, intellectually provocative. I don’t find the hours burdensome because I love what I do so much.”